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And They're the Good Guys?

A look at television's elevation of the antihero

Take a moment to consider the television characters that currently populate the world of police and courtroom dramas: Vic Mackey (The Shield); Jack Bauer (24); Dexter Morgan (Dexter); Grace Anadarko (Saving Grace); Patty Hewes (Damages). This list includes, respectively, a corrupt cop, a wild government agent, a bloodthirsty crime scene analyst, a self-indulgent detective, and a devastatingly cutthroat lawyer. Many of you probably remember when television used to have heroes. Now it seems only to have room for antiheroes—people willing to serve as the story's protagonist, but without all the positive character traits of a traditional hero.

The antihero's elevation in television programming is a cultural text that demands exegesis for purposes of meaningful preaching. In my own exegesis of this phenomenon, I've discovered three possible entry points for the gospel. I will only tackle the first in this article, and will share the remaining two in a more abbreviated fashion on the Preaching Today blog.

The pursuit of a corrupt, quick fix justice

On September 2, 2008, the first episode of the seventh and final season of The Shield was broadcast. For six previous seasons, viewers of the FX police drama have watched protagonist Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis) lead his strike team in an effort to untangle a mess of sex, drugs, and violence in one of the more sordid districts of Los Angeles. In virtually every episode, the degree of the team's effectiveness has been directly related to whether or not they've been able to resort to extreme measures—engaging in violence to fight violence, refusing to report money seized in drug raids so they can pay off seedy informants, or demeaning men, women, and children in racist, bigoted ways. Though most fans probably watch the show with their mouths agape, they probably cannot help but wonder if the end justifies the means. If such extreme actions result in the decline of gang warfare, rape, murder, and robbery, are such actions really all that bad? Their pursuit of justice might be unjust in itself, but for every member of Mackey's team that might be placed behind bars, ten more thugs would freely roam the streets. 

Vic Mackey probably wouldn't even exist if it weren't for the antihero who started it all a year before The Shield premiered: 24's Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland). One of the first heroes of a post-9/11 world, Bauer is a brash counter-terrorist agent who engages in constant moral compromise. If he can't get the truth, he'll lie, and if he still can't get the truth, he's not above taking a drill to someone's leg in a horrifying act of torture.

The Mackeys and Bauers of television have given rise to many more like them. Consider Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall, Dexter), a serial killer who quenches his thirst for blood by hunting down and killing other serial killers. At least he's doing away with bad guys, right? Holly Hunter's Grace Anadarko (Saving Grace) is a hard-drinking, morally bankrupt detective who deserves to be fired for what she does both on the job and off. But she's so good at what she does that she deserves a little grace, right? And then there's Patty Hewes (Glenn Close, Damages). She's a ruthless lawyer who is willing to engage in anything if it guarantees a courtroom victory, be it unethical or illegal. It all seems a little cutthroat, but at least she closes the cases that need closing, right?

Weekly Nielsen ratings show large numbers of viewers are regularly drawn to the messy narratives that revolve around these messy people. And it's not just couch potatoes who love these dramas—the vast majority of these shows have become critical darlings that are often rewarded as stellar programming. So what does it tell us that Americans are keen on setting aside a few nights a week to cheer on the likes of these protagonists and giddy at the prospects of rewarding the actors and writers involved? I believe it ultimately tells us that our listeners long for a world marked by justice, yet they are incredibly discouraged at the prospects of a just world ever becoming a reality—so much so, that they have taken to championing the shadiest of protagonists, if that protagonist can simply "deliver the goods" in some way, shape, or form. 

Humanity has long ached for a world "put to rights" (as author and bishop N. T. Wright often says). Still, it does seem as of late that we have grown especially obsessed with the idea of another, better world. More than ever, we want a world with streets we can walk at night without having to look over our shoulders. We want a world where buildings don't have to tremble when planes fly nearby. We want a world void of any nation or person with the spirit of the Assyrians or Babylonians of old. We desperately want a pre-Fall world marked by justice.

The crucial task that rests on preachers' shoulders is to help listeners reject a corrupt, quick fix pursuit of justice for a Christological, "however long" pursuit.

What our more popular television shows indicate, however, is that we are getting increasingly impatient with waiting around for such a world to become a reality. Viewing habits are a confession of sorts, and through our shows we are saying we can only sing "How long, O Lord?" for so long. The fierce loyalty we show to The Shield or 24 or Damages proves just how anxious we are to cut the tired tune short. Such programs offer alternative worlds to get lost (and found) in, where the process of justice moves more swiftly—a world where we can leave behind the due process of investigation, negotiations, peaceful protest, efforts at reconciliation, or even just simple conversation. They offer a glimpse of what would happen if a few capable parties stopped waiting on the just hand of God to take justice into their own hands. Their pursuit of a better world would be corrupt, but at least it's a quicker fix. For that very reason, if ever Vic Mackey or Jack Bauer were to climb out of our television sets, I suspect we would make one the chief of police and ask the other to run Homeland Security. We would probably then agree to look the other way, so long as they make good on their promise of safer neighborhoods and the prevention of another 9/11. All this because we're simply too tired to consider the other, more complicated options anymore.  

The pursuit of a Christological, "however long" justice

It's important to note that the whole host of Scripture is in agreement that the pursuit of justice is a noble cause. But the whole host of Scripture is just as quick to shun a corrupt pursuit of justice. Legal texts, prophetic utterances, and stories all raise a critical question we all must weigh carefully: no matter our weariness, what good is it to gain a slightly better world, yet forfeit our souls through a godless process?

This is precisely why we should consider using our pulpits to offer a better, more biblical pursuit of justice. While it's safe to assume that no one in our respective communities is going to follow in Vic Mackey's footsteps and engage in brute violence or other wild tactics, it's also safe to assume that no one is immune to engaging in acts of injustice for the sake of justice: blurring the lines between justice and judging for the sake of vengeance, entertaining sidebar conversations either to avoid or control the more necessary ones, embellishing stories to gain a following, or reading a confidential memo on the boss's desk to gain an upper hand over a less deserving co-worker. When any one of us tires of waiting for justice, any one of us is vulnerable to leaving God for alternative routes—even more so when already drunk on the images and ideas that dance on our television screens. The crucial task that rests on preachers' shoulders, then, is to help listeners reject the corrupt, quick fix pursuit of justice for a Christological, "however long" pursuit.

Let's first discuss our preaching for a Christological pursuit of justice. As many scholars have rightly noted, the kingdom teachings of Christ seem upside down when compared with the ways of the world. Besides issues of salvation, this is never more true than when Jesus speaks of issues of justice. His instruction contended with the ways of Rome and religious rulers alike. It remains contentious even today, and our preaching should appropriately reflect that reality.

Why not preach some of the propositions of Christ in the face of ideas being conveyed in our television programming? Turning the other cheek and handing out forgiveness in extravagant fashion is awfully impractical in the world of The Shield, but Jesus insists both carry the only real promise of a long-term solution, because both create space for the Spirit's work. There is precious little time in the world of 24 for Matthew 18, but we are nonetheless called to its principled living—and therein only do we find the presence of God.

If you'd rather approach the issue in a way that sneaks up on the listener, perhaps you should highlight some of the more subtle ways that Jesus toppled notions of quick-fix justice. When was the last time you took to your pulpit to preach the subversive story of Simon the Zealot? Few biblical narratives can do more damage to a misguided pursuit of justice. Zealotry was a movement in first century Judaism that aimed at expelling the Roman government by way of a violent uprising—all for the sake of a more just world. By simply calling on Simon to "follow him" instead, Jesus was pointing out a better way forward, turning the common zealot's theological-political framework on its ear.

And I haven't yet mentioned the most powerful (and obvious) preaching option of all: simply proclaiming a bird's eye view of the life and ministry of Christ through the lens of the pursuit of justice. At virtually every turn, he champions a pursuit that resembles a spot of yeast working its way through the dough, a mustard seed that takes root and startles over time. Even in his final moments he showed us that his pursuit relies not on the power of some supernatural army, but on something as seemingly foolish and weak as a cross.

As you mull over ideas for preaching a Christological pursuit of justice, keep in mind that you'll also need to preach the "however long" quality of such a pursuit. While we must proclaim the upside-down nature of Christ's ethics of justice, we must also be honest about its timetable. The nature of a Christological pursuit of justice—going a mile more than one, constant concern over the appropriateness of action, doling out grace and mercy, taking up the cross daily—takes time. Things are further complicated when you look at the matter of justice from a big-picture perspective. God's work in Christ is both now and not yet. An incredible-but-mysterious act of justice began at the Cross and will not reach its climax until the new heaven and new earth. Though justice makes cameo appearances, it has not yet entered the stage in all its glory. Because this leads to a seemingly schizophrenic life of both celebration and waiting, weariness is inevitable—and weariness is the root of all evil in matters of justice. More often than not, it leads to resignation, which is a breeding ground for misguided action.  

The key responsibility we hold as preachers is a tricky one: we must acknowledge that we live in a constant state of pleading ("How long, O Lord?"), while we also push all believers to adopt a resolute state fueled by hope ("However long, O Lord!"). If we can help our listeners live in the tension of the two, the chances of corruption decrease significantly, while space for a Christological approach increases.

How might we best accomplish this in our preaching? I can think of no better place to start than the Book of Psalms. Take your audience on a journey through Psalm 13—perhaps the best example of a soul that honestly pleads with the Lord, while resolutely trusting in him at the same time. Since David penned the words, don't hesitate to place the psalm alongside his personal narrative. His words take on so much more meaning when attached to the agony of his relationship with Saul (1 Samuel 18–31). On more than one occasion, David had the opportunity to take the life of the awful king—and no one would have blamed him for doing so in his weariness. But his trust in God kept his sword in its sheath. As we all know, his confident expectations of a just God were eventually met. 

Another possibility is for you to give voice to another type of poet—the prophet. Though any one will do, I have found myself drawn to the words of Habakkuk as I've reflected on the cultural text at hand. The "How long, O Lord" plea that opens the book is bold enough to make anyone sit up and take notice. The "However long, O Lord" resolution that closes it is moving enough to make anyone cry. The prophet's hope was not unfounded. The Lord did exactly as he said he would do.

Just as I did with my thoughts on preaching a Christological pursuit of justice, I'll close with what might be the most powerful (and obvious) preaching option of all: help the listener catch a glimpse of what it will look like when the "now" finally swallows up the "not yet" entirely. An opportunity to gasp at the beauty of Revelation 21 and 22 might go a long way in encouraging resolute living.

Final Thoughts

There are certainly many more biblical texts you could explore with your audience. Perhaps you could also share some modern-day stories that show how fiction both reflects and perpetuates reality—stories of corruption in police forces and assorted news items of people who have taken justice into their own hands. And what great power can be found in sharing modern-day stories of people who have embraced a more Christological pursuit of justice—people like Desmond Tutu in his stand against apartheid. As you consider how you might tackle this topic from your own pulpit, to your own people, I think you'll find that the opportunities to appropriately contend with some of the misguided ideas offered in our police and legal dramas are virtually endless.

Brian Lowery is managing editor of PreachingToday.com.

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